Designing Npcs: 6 Miscellaneous Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0088

  1. Have a 3rd Party Run An NPC At Least Once For Each
  2. Use Broad Brush Strokes When Designing NPCs 
  3. Give Every NPC A Bowling Trophy
  4. Use Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs As An NPC Tool 
  5. Use Role Models
  6. Use Tarot Cards

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Assassin Fiction
  2. Mapping Method 
  3. Mapping Drama Tip: What Do The Players Enjoy? 
  4. New GM Tip & Dealing With Large Groups 

A Brief Word From Johnn

GM Questionnaire Help 

Last week, at my RPG site, I posted a request for question ideas to help me create a GM analysis & feedback questionnaire. Being the end of August and peak holiday time, I received only one response with four great questions.

So, I’m putting you to task now. I’d like to build a free survey tool for RPG groups to use to generate feedback and help them improve.

The original article about GM Feedback is here:

If you have any ideas about questions for the survey, please drop me an email. Thanks!

Print Friendly File Of Archives Available

Jim Matthews put in a ton of work and has created a print friendly, trimmed, raw text file of Issues 1 – 83 for us.

Jim says the file is about 300 pages long in Courier 10 point, and about 250 long with Courier 9 point. It’s not pretty, but if you’ve been wanting to print issues out this is a good file to do it with because Jim’s gone to the trouble of deleting repetitive header and footer information and double spacing to make things as short as possible.

Thanks Jim!

You can download the file from here:
RPT – 5 Room Dungeon Contest Entries

Issue Posted In Forum

I’ve posted this issue in my Game Masters forum for your feedback. Last week’s issue about assassins drew a couple of great posts containing good advice and tips. Hopefully this week’s issue will do the same. See you there!

Here’s the URL:


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Roleplaying Games Articles & Reviews

Check out my other Roleplaying Games web site:

New This Week:

Enhancing Magic Items Without Sacrificing Game Balance:

Game Review: Star Wars: The Dark Side Sourcebook

Game Review: Harvest of Thorns for Tribe 8

Designing Npcs: 6 Miscellaneous Tips

Have a 3rd Party Run An NPC At Least Once For Each

Last session I had a player run an NPC who has been with the party for many sessions. Though I gave the NPC some personality and have been roleplaying him well as an NPC, the player put all of my efforts to shame. It was a brilliant performance and I encourage you let someone else play your important NPCs.

Here’s why:

  • When you play NPCs you have many, many other things to think about. However, a player is able to focus completely on the NPC as a character and bring it to life.
  • The player will give you a completely different perspective of the NPC than you had while playing it yourself, giving you more ideas and material to work with.
  • When the player is finished playing the NPC for you, you’ll receive a more fleshed out character with greater personality. That makes it easy for you to play the NPC better in future games and stories.
  • The player can help you develop any details you missed, including filling in the blanks on the NPC’s character sheet (providing you use sheets for NPCs).
  • The player has nothing to lose, and so might rise to the occasion with a brilliant performance. Cautious players might enjoy the freedom of using a “disposable” character. Bored players might enjoy playing a different character for a change. Shy players might roleplay better a character with an already existing personality.

Here are some situations where this technique can be useful:

  • The party splits and one or more players is left out of the action.
  • A new player has joined–or is thinking of joining–the group and you want to “try each other out” before deciding on permanent membership.
  • A player whose character has been incapacitated and will be out of play for a long while.
  • You’re short on players for the game session and ask a friend or relative to play.
  • An old friend is in town and wants to play before returning home.
  • You bring a person in specifically to help flesh out an NPC.
  • You want to try having a co-GM without revealing all your campaign secrets until you know the two GM thing will work.

Use Broad Brush Strokes When Designing NPCs

When planning for most campaigns, you’re better off creating a number of interesting NPCs, using brief descriptions, than to spend all of your planning time on making a few, highly detailed NPCs.John G. writes:

“Most NPC’s don’t have to be 3-dimensional, they just have to appear that way to the players. The average NPC can be summed up in a few descriptive words. For example:Aaron Stonestaff. Retired warrior, owner of the Pegasus’ Wing Tavern, has a soft spot for adventurers, will often buy them drinks in return for stories of adventures, has no thumb on his right hand, and after a few drinks will regale patrons with the story of how it was bitten off by an ogre.

The trick is to use broad strokes to describe him, then give him a noticeable personality quirk or physical feature that you can hang your roleplaying on. Details can be done on the fly.”I’ve also found that, when faced with an NPC sheet full of details while GMing, I “tighten up” and run the NPC poorly. There’s just too much information to deal with and I make a wooden delivery.

All that information tends to diffuse my mental image of the NPC as well. I deliver a far better performance when I have a clear picture of the NPC in mind than when I’m trying to piece together a lot of details into a distinct personality.

Give Every NPC A Bowling Trophy

Here is an excellent tip from Indigo Shift:”A long time ago I read an interview of a comic book artist. The interviewer was asking him for drawing tips. He said the most important thing in drawing a room, an office, or other space “owned” by a minor character is to include a bowling trophy.Everyone, no matter how great or small, has his or her own “bowling trophy”, whether it is a certificate of achievement, an article of clothing awarded for some feat, or a medal presented by a dignitary in recognition for whatever.

No matter what form it takes, it’s a reminder of something the character has done, and did well. As an amusing contrast, the bowling trophy could be given for something ridiculous (greatest sheep farmer in the western territories!) that the NPC is still very proud of.I use the same theory in designing NPCs. When I sit down to create one, I think up a bowling trophy. It doesn’t even need to be an actual object. Just the concept behind the object.Every NPC I make has something they do that they’re very good at.

Or, it’s something they are known for, something they enjoy (a hobby or obsession), even something they wish for every day–a goal or dream.This “bowling trophy” is what drops me into their character when I’m playing the NPC at the table for my players. It’s the NPC’s “point of view”…everything they do or say is influenced to some degree by this character anchor.


One NPC was a vampyre (in the NightLife RPG). Her bowling trophy consisted of her old occupation, when she was a smuggler of sorts. Everything she did or said, every action she took, was influenced by this old job. As a result, she had her own maddeningly unique ways of dealing with everyday problems (including the PCs). They had a hard time figuring out how her mind worked until they discovered this aspect of her past. Then it got a little easier and they had fun trying to figure her out.

Another NPC was a scholar in our Talislanta campaign. His bowling trophy was the fact that he was a very respected scholar and authority on ancient myth. His tagline was “I’m a scholar by trade,” which doesn’t sound amusing unless it’s used in certain circumstances. Even the repetition got more and more amusing, not to mention the dialogue.

Think of the bowling trophy as an anchor, or a foundation everyone has. Something to be proud of. Because *everyone*, no matter how unimportant, has something they did in their life that they’re very proud of, and it tends to color their thinking forever after that. And, as long as you remember to give them their trophy every time you make an NPC, they’ll never be two-dimensional.”

Use Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs As An NPC Tool

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who believed that people acted and behaved according to their current human needs, rather than as a result of having broken brains. He felt that some needs were universally more important than others, and he went on to create a prioritized list of the major ones:

  1. Physiological Needs. Oxygen, food, water, shelter. These needs are the strongest because they are based on pure survival.
  2. Safety Needs. To feel secure in one’s surroundings, stability, and future safety.
  3. Love, Affection and Belongingness Needs. To be accepted by others, have friends, feel needed, and the ability to give and receive love.
  4. Esteem Needs. To be competent and receive respect from others. If these needs are not met, the person feels inferior, weak, helpless and worthless.
  5. Self-actualization Needs. A person’s need to be and do that which the person was “born to do”. “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write”.

A person must fulfill each step before proceeding to the next one. When creating your NPCs then, work them through Maslow’s hierarchy:

  1. How do they see to it that they survive immediate threats?
  2. What provides them with long-term security?
  3. Where do they get companionship?
  4. What are they good at?
  5. What provides them with intellectual and spiritual satisfaction?

Pick the number with the key question for the NPC, and start from there. Devote the most attention to the question you chose, and less and less to the ones farther away from it.

For example, a typical orc might be the most focused on staying alive. So, think of strategies for how the orc does this – perhaps it is paranoid and likes traps, maybe it has a tendency to hide, run away, entertain, infiltrate. Maybe it has a tendency to avoid trouble by doing what it is told without much interest beyond that. Maybe it gets its sense of security from religion and chose the way of a fanatic.

In any case, the orc has undoubtedly also prepared against immediate threats, yet it’s advanced enough to crave companionship as well, though this might be in rather unusual ways. A pet could supply these needs nicely.

On the other hand, an esoteric sage could devote his time and attention to intellectual challenges. He is good at spellcraft and arcane knowledge, and tolerates an inept apprentice so he would not be completely alone. He does not have time to be thinking about security, and would almost be helpless against a direct threat to his life simply because the idea he might die has not crossed his mind in years.

For more details on Maslow, check this page out:

(Thanks to Aki Halme who sent in this tip!)

Use Role Models

Aki Halme writes: “Pick someone you are familiar with as material for an NPC. Maybe the fit is good – perhaps not so good. Either way, it makes for an interesting NPC without much work on your part.”

  • Friends
  • Relatives
  • Co-workers
  • Celebrities
  • Politicians
  • Historical figures
  • Characters from movies
  • Characters from books
  • People profiled in magazines and newspapers
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Use Tarot Cards

From Aki

Tarot cards are an attractive and efficient way to develop NPCs. Think of what you wish to know about the character, and draw a card for inspiration on the answer.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Assassin Fiction

From tsuntsue2001

There was a book published about 4 months ago called “Assassins Fantastic”. It’s an anthology of assassin stories. It is well written, showing the failed assassin, retired assassin, and the different genres of assassins.

[Johnn: the next two tips are in reply to Issue #1 in the archives: Mapping Dilemma: How To Stop Your Players From Yawning]
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Mapping Method

From Mulkey

In my games, we lay out chalk board or a large artist’s drawing pad (2’x3?) and I draw the shape of the room to whatever scale and allow the PCs to place their miniatures on it. As the map changes we turn the pages of the pad. This generally works for a linear path i.e. they go left, they go right, etc. If they encounter a teleport (one of my favorites) or something exciting I keep drawing the map as they see it and let them sort it out.

They still get lost and they still have fun attempting to figure out where in Hades they are and are supposed to be.

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Mapping Drama Tip: What Do The Players Enjoy?

From: Rick K.

One problem I have, because I love looking at my awesome maps, is that I often forget that the PCs can’t see all the loving detail I’ve put into the sketch. All they see is what I can put into their mind’s eye, and sometimes even the best DM will not be able to provide the flavor necessary to maintain interest, especially since the players can’t tell that their sixteenth left-right decision will decide whether they end up falling into sewage or arriving in time to save the fair princess (or prince).

All they know is that you’ve posed the same question (left or right, basically) 16 times and nothing has happened yet.

In a good novel, you will never read the following: The heroes went left for 20 feet. The passage turns and after a brief discussion, they went left again. Use novels as inspiration. They gloss over those minute details: After a series of lefts, the heroes suspected they had gone in a circle. Somehow, they ended up at a tall, mysterious door. Perhaps not the greatest example but try it.

After the PCs enter your masterpiece don’t ask them anything that doesn’t directly add drama. You can pretty much tell them which way you want them to go, and give clues when it really is important. That way, when you don’t give any clues, it will still seem important.

“After nearly 15 minutes of creeping down the central passage, crossing silent side tunnels and alcoves filled with grotesque gargoyles, the path ends abruptly. A faint, chill wind blows from left to right down the final T in the passageway, uttering a faint moan as it drifts through the complex. Which way do you go?”


“DM: There’s a side passage that splits left, or you can continue straight. Which way? PCs: Straight. DM: After 20 feet, another side passage goes to the right. PCs: Straight. DM: After 20 feet, another side passage goes to the left. PCs: Straight. DM: After 20 more feet, the passage ends at a T. Which way? PCs: Left/Right!”

Which way do you think the PCs would prefer?

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New GM Tip & Dealing With Large Groups

From Casey D.

Just wanted to add a tip to the “new GM” topic that I didn’t see but think is useful. First, to get a group moving at the beginning of the game when they just want to sit around and talk, a GM can do probably one of the most powerful things in any game: pick out a player and say “Roll.” I’ve found that all the talking goes away when I start having players roll the bones, since no one wants to be left out. This is an especially useful technique when the GM has a large group, which is my second tip: dealing with large groups.

I’ve found that a good size for a GM’s span of control is 4- 6 players; I’ve managed 14, but that wasn’t “GMing” it truly was managing. But what I learned stayed with me throughout all my games: pacing the action so no player got bored.

Players got one “move” usually a die roll, I’d make a note of the result then I’d move on without telling him or her what happened. Then I’d get all the rolls complete, I’d move back to the first player and, using the combined results of all the rolls, I’d begin roleplaying the consequences of their actions.

But sometimes I’d RP action and counteraction with one player for a while, then I’d move on to another. Also, initiative shouldn’t always go to the elf with the best dexterity: sometimes the wisest understands first, or the most charismatic charms the evil sorcerer and gets the first move. Pacing comes from changing the style of play and keeping the players guessing on what’s going to happen. They’ll be more attentive, more quiet, and have more fun.